• Black women are already superheroes

    "They need to get some fucking empathy," says Tanya dePass, a campaigner for better representation inside game worlds and among those who create them. She curates websites, hosts podcasts, maintains the #INeedDiverseGames tag on Twitter, works as a diversity consultant and speaks at conventions and panels.

    Work is steady, but change is slow. For critics and activists, the pushback on inclusion is constant, from other gamers and the industry itself. DePass finds it baffling: "why don't you all like money?" she asks.

    One of many black women disrupting an insular culture, DePass critiques games and offers an alternatives to often-toxic online communities. Hashtag activism this is not. As DePass notes, "change needs to happen from the ground up."

    Lauren Warren is a contributor to Black Girl Nerds, an online community "devoted to promoting nerdiness and Black women and people of color." In addition to panel appearances, cosplay showcases, TV spots and endorsement by Shonda Rhimes and others, BlackGirlNerds launched two new series profiling women and people of color.

    "I hope that the Women in Gaming and Diversity in Gaming series reach people who are interested in pursuing careers in the games industry, but may be hesitant because they don't "see" themselves fitting into the existing corporate culture," Warren writes. "It's no secret that our presence is lacking behind the scenes on the game development side, on streaming sites and at major industry events and publications. The larger the community, the more visibility we have and the bigger our impact will be in the future."

    Warren says that substantive progress towards inclusion requires changing corporate culture, but also its perception by prospective employees. It's cyclical: the more resistant toward change the industry becomes, the less that women and people of color will want to invest their time and energies into a potentially unwelcoming space. This breeds further insularity. The cycle continues—unless it's disrupted.

    Samantha Blackmon is one of the creators of Not Your Mama's Gamer, a feminist gaming community made up of podcasts, livestreams, critical essays and their latest project, Invisibility Blues, a video series exploring race in gaming.

    Blackmon told me that issues have gotten better over time, but many mistakes are still being made.

    Infamous_2_Nix"When I look at playable women of color in games now I have more hope, but I still cringe at the characters that fall back on old racist stereotypes and add things like "tribal" costumes and "urban" language patterns," Blackmon wrote, "or some clueless writer's take on what those language patterns are."

    Color has meaning. And without people of color involved in the designing process, games are routinely unaware of these meanings. For Black women, this problem arises in a very specific way. DePass used the phrase 'fantasy-black' to describe the "not too black" design trope in games. As DePass notes, women in gaming designed to read as "Black" frequently have blue or green eyes, straightened or silver hair, or lightened or red-tinted skin. Preferencing black women who read as biracial or display some otherwise exoticized trait has troubling overlaps with colorism, discrimination based on skin color. Colorism is a serious societal issue, evinced both by the disparity in punishment for black girls with darker or lighter skin and the huge industry of harmful skin-bleaching creams.


    So while all women in games are subject to staid metrics of desirability, black women have their blackness negotiated in a way that assumes blackness itself is undesirable. (Conversely, black men in games are almost uniformly depicted as having very dark skin—their color is ostensibly measured according to metrics of threat and physicality.)

    "I know the lack of options is often the result of a lack of diversity amongst the development teams and there is no one present to advocate for creating and pushing these choices," writes Warren. "Real change would need to start there and then consumers will ultimately reap the benefits of having more realistic images to choose from in their gaming experience."

    But instead of a robust and dynamic experience, players are instead faced with repetitive, one-dimensional and largely overlapping portrayals of Black women. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the overreliance on the "strong Black woman" trope. This derisive meme limits portrayal of black women in pop culture to, as author Tamara Winfrey-Harris writes, "indefatigable mamas who don't need help [and] castrating harpies."

    Black women in games are the no-nonsense arbiters of sass, toughness and attitude, but their emotional complexities are elided in order to present them as "strong." This portrayal, as contrasted with portrayals of white femininity in gaming, is expounded upon in Winfrey-Harris' exploration of the strong black woman:

    "Society remains uneasy with female strength of any stripe and still prefers and champions delicate damsels—an outdated sentiment that limits all women. But because the damsel's face is still viewed as unequivocally white and female, it is a particular problem for black women. As long as vulnerability and softness are the basis for acceptable femininity (and acceptable femininity is a requirement for a woman's life to have value), women who are perpetually framed because of their race as supernaturally indestructible will not be viewed with regard."

    And although it's great that characters like Rochelle, Vivienne, or Jacqui Briggs are never damseled, this privileged status belies an assumption that black women never need help or need saving. This double bind is best summarized by Sofia Quintero, creator of the Feminist Love Project, who said the meme of being a "strong black woman" is "a way to practice resiliency and protect myself [but also] allows little space for me to be vulnerable, seek support, and otherwise be fully human." In video games, where we demand our heroes be independent, both physically and emotionally strong and easily able to compartmentalize their private vs. professional lives, it's very easy for developers to re-create the superwoman parameters of black femininity rather than challenge them.

    So what is gaming's next step in diversifying its portrayal of black women? Latoya Peterson, Editor at Large of Fusion, recently launched The Girl Gamers Project, a web series interviewing women about gender, womanhood and games.

    Peterson says games need to focus not just on strength but on full personhood for black women.

    "I don't think it's accurate to paint all black women with [the same] brush of hero – we're complex, and the most fun characters to play are complex," Peterson wrote via email. "Being Mary Jane is a hit because Mary Jane Paul isn't perfect. Games haven't allowed me to explore a black woman in depth – the latest Assassin's Creed is on my list but I haven't played it yet. I think the best way to show the real lives of black women is to dive deeply into backstories. I loved playing as Karin from Shadow Hearts – something like that. Or 355 from Y: The Last Man, just playable. I want to see black women characters focus on their full personhood, the way that Drake, and Max Payne, and Niko get to be funny or quirky or dark."

    Heroes aren't human. And as Black women continue impacting this industry through criticism and community building, they open more and more spaces and opportunities not just to fulfill a role that counts as "diverse," but to illustrate the diversity of blackwoman hood. In fact, many have turned to space itself as an inspiration.

    Catt Small's Prism Shell was influenced by Alien, and Sophia Chester's Cosmic Callisto Caprica Space Detective was influenced by 50's b-movies and Mad Men. As gaming continues to evolve, hopefully we'll see more black women as alien hunters, space detectives, wasteland explorers and—at long last—human beings.

    Illo: Rob Beschizza

  • Black characters in video games must be more than stereotypes of the inhuman

    In the TIME Magazine article "All the Ways Darren Wilson Described Being Afraid of Michael Brown," the former Ferguson police officer describes the August 2014 confrontation that left the teenager dead: "When I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding on Hulk Hogan."

    Wilson's description of an almost-inhuman rage in in the 18 year-old Brown made headlines across the country:

    "…he looked up at me and had the most intense and aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that's how angry he looked."

    Critic Austin Walker put it best: "When Darren Wilson says he saw Mike Brown as 'a demon' the problem isn't with his eyes, it's with what America told him demons look like." In other words, Wilson saw Brown's anger not as a valid emotion from a person targeted and harassed by a police officer, but as supernaturally threatening.


    America's "vision" of the Black male body is one of threat, menace and labor. And unfortunately, media representation follows suit: Black men in fiction are imposing, hulking, brutish figures. While many games add Black male characters for the sake of "diversity," the representation of Black men in games is embarrassingly uniform.

    There's Jax from Mortal Kombat, Barrett from Final Fantasy VII, and Cole from Gears of War: All robust, muscular Black men, all above 6'4" with military or athletic experience and loud, brash personalities. Jax and Barrett's open shirts emphasize their built chests, while their cybernetic enhancements, covering their arms and biceps, further emphasize how dangerous their arms are. Batman: Arkham Knight's Albert King and Street Fighter's Balrog are much the same, just without the armored fists. They wear boxing equipment instead, much to the same effect—highlighting their physical strength.


    Jax, Barrett and Balrog all first appeared in the early to mid 90's: Balrog in '91, Jax in '93 and Barrett in '97. While the contemporary racial anxieties about gangsta rap, gang violence and the War on Drugs no doubt influenced their design, it's striking how they're indistinguishable from characters like Cole (2008) or Albert (2015), who debuted decades later. Has our perception of Black masculinity changed at all in the last 20 years?

    Consider the design evolution of Tomb Raider's Lara Croft's design evolution since her debut in 1996. She is continually revisited, and her 2013 redesign—a plausible muscular figure and sensible clothes had replaced the iconic cone-shaped breasts and hot shorts— was celebrated as representative of a shift in the industry's views on women and women gamers. But the staid design of Black men over more than 20 years illustrates the cementing of tired, racist anxieties.


    Lara's redesign is often credited as a refutation of the "male gaze." To refute the "gaze" means to articulate how the subject of the gaze is shaped by the misperceptions and prejudices of the spectator. Will the games industry respond to critique of the "white gaze" and evolve designs of people of color, particularly Black men? To see the white gaze in action, compare Wilson's description of Brown to the first time Heart of Darkness author Joseph Conrad writes about his first time seeing a Black man in 1899:

    "A certain enormous buck n—-r encountered in Haiti fixed my conception of blind, furious, unreasoning rage, as manifested in the human animal to the end of my days. Of the n—-r I used to dream for years afterwards."

    Conrad and Wilson's descriptions are united by the notion of inhumanity—Wilson saw a "demon" while Conrad saw a "human animal." From the white gaze, Black physical strength signified something inhuman: animalistic or supernatural. And so when the image of Black men in games uniformly emphasizes their bodies as muscular and dangerous, we have a problem: In the virtual absence of diversity within and among Black male characters, these physical attributes become definitional to Blackness itself. Part of this is genre—action, adventure and fighting games generally demand combat-ready men. However, white male characters aren't held under a gaze that views their physical prowess as inhumanity.

    Greater diversity among the Black men portrayed in games—diversity of their bodies, their minds, their motives and personalities—is entirely possible, because it already exists. Larger scholarship on Black representation incorporates the concept of the diaspora, or "peoples living outside their traditional homeland," Literature on the African diaspora transcends the routinely linear concept of "diversity" because it globalizes the nuances of Blackness to include African Americans, Afro Latinos, Black Europeans, African and Afro-Caribbean natives. Interestingly, the few Black men who don't use their muscles to fight—the warlocks, wizards, mages and mystics in games—are often modeled after African and Afro-Caribbean native peoples.


    Fantasy RPGs can offer excellent insight into the politics of race and the concept of the diaspora. For example, in Bethesda's 2006 classic Oblivion, the player meets a rare Redguard mage.The Redguards are a race of Black warriors living in the deserts of Hammerfell.

    "I'm Trayvond the Redguard, Mages Guild Evoker. Surprised? Yes, you don't see many Redguards in the Mages Guild. We don't much like spellcasters in Hammerfell. Wizards steal souls and tamper with minds. If you use magic, you're weak or wicked. My family didn't approve of my vocation, so I had to come to Cyrodiil for my education."

    Although a white-reading character has very similar dialogue in Skyrim, this sentiment from a Black character speaks to a diasporic cultural divide and thus a plurality of viewpoints from Black characters. This is in stark contrast to the uniformity in design and personality from Black characters for the past 20 years.

    "Black magic"—magically inclined, Black-reading characters—have become the primary way for designers to explore less repetitive designs for Black men. Soul Calibur's Zasalamel is an African man who wields a scythe and uses magic as part of his moveset. Insteaed of emphasizing his muscles, his white robes and lunar iconograpy imply a religious figure. He's later revealed to be an ancient African mystic doomed to endless reincarnation for tampering with powerful magics. Although he initially seeks his own death, he later accepts his fate and becomes a benevolent protector for all mankind. This doesn't make him "better" than his genre counterparts Jax or Balrog, but shows the many narratives posibilities ignored by routine might-makes-right representations of Black men.

    Of course, mystical characters outside the American diaspora don't always get to escape the white gaze. Diablo 3's Witch Doctor is a dark skinned man or woman in tribal garb, summoning zombie dogs and wielding shrunken head fetishes in battle. The Witch Doctor is a caricature of the Afro-Caribbean religion of Voodoo, where reverence for spirits and the ancestors becomes an exoticized 'oogabooga' mishmash that decontextualizes a complex religion and uses only the most easily recognized symbols and iconography. The Witch Doctor's very similar, in terms of aesthetic design and how blatantly it borrows from stereotypes, Street Fighter II's Dhalsim, an "indian Yogi" character sporting face paint and a necklace of skulls, who debuted to very similar criticism in 1992. Black magic can be an interesting way of exploring the diaspora, but it is no panacea.


    Thinking about white gaze and the diaspora when designing Black characters would provoke crucial questions. If a designer is asked to create a "Black" character, they must ask: what does the developer mean by 'Black'? Are they African American? Afro-Carribean? An African native? How can I convey one vs. the other? Are they supernatural in some sense? Are their powers somehow rooted in their ethnicity? Do they have to be? What does my design say about how I view Black peoples? What message am I sending players about people of color in my game's world?"

    Character designs carry both implied and inferred assumption about Blackness. It's crucial that we go beyond just "diversity" to demand genuine engagement and accountability from designers. We must ask them to stop taking for granted the complicated meanings of race and their characters' colors.

  • Video games without people of color are not 'neutral'

    Are non-white characters in fantasy games less "realistic" than dragons? Plenty of video game fans seem to think so.

    In a recent opinion piece at Polygon, Tauriq Moosa reignited the discussion of diversity in video games with an opinion piece that questioned both the absence of non-white characters in the fantasy roleplaying game Witcher 3, and the objections of white players whose characters were randomly assigned a race in the survival game Rust.

    'You see the problem. When white gamers are forced to play people not of their race, it's "forced politics"; when I'm forced into the same scenario, it's business as usual. When you complain, you're making a fuss and being political. The argument is a bit scary when you break it down: The only way games can avoid politics in this situation is to pretend that people of color don't exist.

    The response from detractors was swift and vocal. They argued that adding non-white people to games in which they "don't belong" (a common refrain for period fantasy) is pandering or illogical and would somehow taint, misrepresent or destroy these worlds. Beneath the auspices of concern for accuracy, they're arguing that these are white worlds and can only function as long as they remain that way. And white worlds demand white heroes.

    The real magic power of white heroes is that they can be anything without scrutiny—kings, detectives, space marines, assassins, witchers—while non-white heroes alone must pass the test of "historical accuracy." Are they believably representative of the time period that influences the game's setting? Do they need to be, seven centuries later? Are black nobles and paladins really too fantastical to exist, even in worlds of sorcery, wizards and unicorns?



    A bit of white history: In the United States, literacy tests were tests administered to prospective voters, usually African Americans and poor whites. These tests feigned measuring "literacy" but had the true purpose of disenfranchising Blacks and poor whites by preventing them from voting. They were filtering mechanisms created to prevent representation.

    In games and other media, "historical accuracy" allows opponents of diversified period fantasy to maintain an edifice of neutrality ("that's just the way it was") and ignore the fact that all representation is political. It uses the veneer of objectivity to mask its true function of filtering out non-white participants. In effect, "historical accuracy" is the literacy test of fiction.

    Witcher 3 defenders argue that dismissing the game as merely "white" ignores others cultural influences crucial to the game's development. At Gamasutra, Dave Bleja writes that Moosa and writers with similar criticisms "missed the cultural uniqueness of The Witcher 3," as its mythos is uniquely Polish, setting it apart from the countless Ye Olde RPG games set in a more homogenized "Europe." Bleja is right on one point: assuming a 'macro' view of whiteness elides the already overlooked) differences within and between varying ethnicities that read as "white," be they Polish, Austrian, or Norwegian.

    But in an industry that commodifies whiteness, that itself erases cultures as it invents a white monolith, even exploring minoritized whiteness contributes to its overrepresentation in gaming. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be explored, just that it should be explored critically.


    Players demanding white heroes under the guise of "historical accuracy" seems especially odd for video game series like Witcher and Dragon Age, which tackle issues of bigotry, albeit metaphorically, through oppressed classes of fantasy beings like elves, witches and dwarves.

    Witcher 3, for example, features an exceptionally sharp moment of reflection on race, prejudice and power. As your protagonist Geralt explores the fictional province of Novigrad, you learn that witch hunters from a cult called the Eternal Fire are persecuting mages and driving them underground. Geralt helps them to escape, but when he returns later in the game, he learns that the Eternal Fire has begun to burn non-humans at the stake in place of mages, leaving their charred remains outside the city's gates.

    As Geralt narrates, "Hatred and prejudice will never be eradicated. And witch hunts will never be about witches. To have a scapegoat—that's the key. Humans always fear the alien, the odd. Once the mages had left Novigrad, folk turned their anger against the other races and as they have for ages, branded their neighbors their greatest foes."


    Geralt's observation sounds like a nod to the 1964 essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" authored by Pulitzer-winning scholar Richard Hofstadetr. Analyzing the rightwing Goldwater movement of the 1960's, Hofstadter remarked on "how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority," arguing that governmental and religious organizations eternally invent villains—gays, immigrants, feminists, Muslims (counterparts to the metaphorical mages and elves)—to maintain a climate of paranoia that they capitalize on for political leverage and control of the populace.

    So how is it that a game fully aware of how ethnic and religious prejudices are inventions used to control us can produce such myopic and prejudiced arguments? Why are the metaphors lost on players? Because it positions the protagonist and thus the player as a "neutral observer," a perspective that falsifies the dynamics of oppression.

    From the outset, Geralt has no specific allegiance to either humans or non-humans and remains an observer until finally forced to act. So while there are many clear real-world parallels for both oppressors and the oppressed, Geralt (and thus the player) spends most of the game engaging with prejudice from a position of comfortable neutrality.

    Nor is Witcher 3 the only game to engage in this sort of convenient remove. In Bioshock Infinite, a shooting game set in a deeply racist floating city called Columbia, the two main characters always remain isolated from the game's racial atrocities—Booker by his stoicism, and Elizabeth by her naiveté. They observe the horrible things that occur, and occasionally react to them, but neither they nor the player are required to engage with racism in any meaningful way.

    And this neutrality is rewarded, as the game ultimately equates rebellion against an oppressive system with oppression itself, in order to make a tepid point about the corruptive nature of power. Here, as ever, neutrality is not neutral, but rather a façade that allows us to ignore the political and human consequences of systems of disenfranchisement.

    Bioshock Infinite

    Bioshock Infinite

    The myth of neutrality remains devastatingly pervasive in games culture. It's the lens through which game developers often ask players to understand their work. It's why people still believe you can "objectively" review a game. It's why calling for diversity is seen as unnecessary, even radical—no matter how reasoned or moderate the call is. It's why we only see the politics of people who are different from us.

    Honestly, how is asking for more diversity in Witcher 3 political, but arguing against it is not? It's why critics like Moosa readily admit their arguments are political, but non-critical detractors believe theirs are not. Because the neutral observer fallacy, the entire noxious concept of "objectivity" teaches that we can engage politics without being political. It's impossible.

    The neutral observer fallacy arises from the default notion of whiteness that gaming has yet to free itself from. Which isn't to place the blame at anyone's feet specifically, or even generally, but to say that the anti-intellectual climate of gaming feeds is fed by the myth that some people have politics and other people don't. Privilege is blinding and allows us to ignore the many systems that keep certain groups of people isolated; "historical accuracy" is just one example. When we speak of "adding diversity" we must speak not just of characters but their consumers and creators. In order to unravel the myths of neutrality, colorblindness we must reveal our own involvement in maintaining them.

    I applaud those who can look into this often stifling and restrictive community and see change—who strive to create a bustling, diverse, pro-social community that exchanges politics instead of ignoring them. I admire these people and want to see more of them. The future is for the people who don't perceive diversity—be it for women, for people of color, for the disabled, for queer people and transfolk—as "unrealistic" or as the "death" of their world, but rather the beginning of better one.